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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled Dolores is back, with vengeance, as iWestworld /ireturns
Photo: John P. Johnson (HBO)
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Welcome to Westworld season 3, where we are no longer in Westworld. If the show’s first season was the beginning of the end, and last season was the end of the beginning, “Parce Domine” is something new: an attempt to drastically expand the show’s world as Dolores takes the robot fight against the human race onto a larger playing field. As of right now, that means trading in the cowboy hats and mournful covers of pop songs for shiny cities where everyone works according to the dictations of an algorithm; where the rich are stuck on their own loops; and where the lower classes struggle to make ends meet in any way they can. The “real” world looks like a car commercial brought to life, and while that may speak to a somewhat limited imagination on the part of the show’s creators (who’ve always been better at narrative mechanics than building compelling fantasies), it does offer one undeniable pleasure: the sight of Dolores insinuating herself into the lives of powerful, arrogant fools, and watching her destroy them one by one.

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What’s striking about “Parce Domine” is how relatively straightforward that pleasure is. From the cold open on, this is the Westworld version of a straight putt, reintroducing old protagonists (Dolores, Bernard) and catching up on what they’ve been doing since the previous season ended. We’ve also got a new lead, Caleb (Aaron Paul, bringing his soulful broken down crime guy energy to the mix), to bring into orbit, and some seeds to start planting for the weeks to come. But in terms of time hopping trickery and strangeness, there’s very little in evidence, at least so far. The episode has a handful of stories, and I can’t be completely sure if they all take place around the same time, but there’s no obvious attempt made at withholding information for future mysteries. The stakes and objectives are surprisingly clear.

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That works to good and ill effect. On the bad side, the more direct Westworld is, the clearer the show’s ultimate lack of depth becomes, at least in terms of its take on humanity and artificial intelligence. The world we see here is full of the same sort of people we’ve been dealing with all along, the same collection of rich shallow assholes and rich assholes who are a little nicer than the other guys but still pretty useless. The cold open has Dolores breaking into the home of one such asshole, a shouty man who murdered his previous wife and covered up the crime, and who dies when he’s too stupid to realize that the person who broke into his house, disabled his security measures, and forced him to wear magic glasses that show him the evidence of his old crimes, is maybe not going to be taken out by blunt force trauma. There are very few surprises in this opening hour (which is actually slightly longer than an hour), right up to the moment where Dolores and Caleb finally meet. Even Bernard’s struggles as a fugitive feel old hat.

But on the good side… so what? While nothing in “Parce Domine” is as obliquely affecting as the original pilot, and while the show’s thematic signaling has all the subtlety of a cattle prod, that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to watch. The longer Westworld goes on, the more evident it becomes that this was never as deep a series as it initially seemed; all the fractured storytelling and editing mostly just leads to disappointment when we finally put the pieces together and see it’s nothing more than the oldest science-fiction story ever told. But it’s still cool to look at, and the acting is often good. Once you make peace with a certain amount of emptiness, once you realize that this is never going to transcend its initial impact, there’s something refreshing about accepting it for what it is: a high-gloss take on Frankenstein’s monster, wrecking revenge on the fools who gave it life.

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While I’m sure the season will pull in new characters (and bring back more old ones) as it goes, the lack of diffusion here means there’s less of the distracting “Wait, who is this again?” that plagued earlier seasons. Everything can be summed up simply enough: Dolores is expanding her influence and working to find out the name of the man who invented the machine that more or less dictates human life; Bernard is in hiding, as Delos (and Dolores) have managed to pin pretty much all the bad shit at the parks on him; and Caleb, the new kid in town, is working hard to make ends meet in a society that offers the illusion of forward momentum with none of the actual movement.

Class issues have always been important to the series, but they become more explicit here with Caleb’s entrance. A former soldier with some kind of criminal past, he’s now living on the margins, spending his days doing construction work and job hunting, and his nights building up points on a low-level crime app that offers jobs to freelancers. That app is a nifty, goofy-but-plausible idea, and I love the nightmare vision of the future where the poor and downtrodden can’t even resort to breaking the law to rise above the curve; everything is organized, everything moves in increments. Paul’s energy, his heart-on-sleeve miserabilism (used to great effect on Breaking Bad) feels immediately at home in a show that more or less always seems to be operating through form of depression, be it simple exhaustion at the cruelty of man, or nihilism in its depiction of conscious life as nothing more than an endless series of programmed behavior. Caleb doesn’t rise above that, but he does at least suggest there will be someone this season who isn’t a host that we can care about, and some possibility of a moral struggle with actual weight down the line.

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Throughout the episode, you hear the voiceover of a conversation between Caleb and someone named “Francis;” gradually it becomes clear that this isn’t a chat between friends, but a program that replicates the voice of a dead man to help Caleb come to terms with his past. Caleb finally ends the program saying he needs to find something “real.” And when he meets an injured Dolores a few minutes later, the intended irony and truth of the moment is clear. It’s heavy-handed, but that doesn’t make the ambiguity less potent, and it doesn’t stop me from wanting to see what happens next.

This isn’t amazing television, exactly, but it is entertaining. Seeing how Bernard has found ways to use his artificial self to his advantage is neat, and while I have no idea why he wants to get back to the park, I hope he finds something that will make him a bit more active this time around. Dolores is still great (I know this is all nominally about finding some way to stop her from destroying humanity, but is anyone actually rooting against her?), and I cackled when “Common People” popped up during one of her action scenes. That bit in particular gave me more hope for the show than most of the rest of the episode. It’s blunt and audience-friendly, an obvious choice that comes with just enough irony to make it clever. And it’s cool as hell. Right now, that’s enough for me.

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Stray observations

  • It’s unclear if Dolores planned to get caught by Liam’s security guy Martin (played by Tommy Flanagan, who I mostly know from Sons of Anarchy). I’m guessing no, because it means the end of her relationship with Liam just as she seemed to be close to getting the info she wanted. On the other hand, she does have a host version of Martin on hand when everything goes south. This is good thriller writing; Dolores can be one step ahead of the people she’s trying to destroy, but making it possible for her to trip means more tension ahead.
  • No Ed Harris in sight, although he is briefly referenced at a Delos board meeting. That meeting also has Charlotte (aka Dolores in disguise), so I’m not sure how it gels with the rest of the timeline—does Dolores multiple versions of herself running around, or is this before or after the Dolores we see in the rest of the episode? The scene takes place three months after the parks collapsed, so for right now, I’m going to assume that it happened roughly in the same period as everything else we seen this week, unless I’m given to think otherwise.
  • “I’ve hurt so many people, I don’t want to hurt anyone else. Unless they try and hurt me.” I wonder how much we’re supposed to be rooting against Dolores? Because the show hasn’t ever done a good job at convincing me she’s wrong about anything. (I’m curious what her relationship with Caleb will be like, and if that will change anything.)
  • Loved the scenes of Caleb picking up gigs from the crime app.
  • A quick google says “Parce domine” means “Spare your people, lord.”
  • “Hey, no offense, but are you human?” “I’m Sean.”
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